(first posted 1/7/2016) The Oldsmobile Intrigue was a volley lobbed right at the heart of the American car market. The best-selling cars in America during the 1990s were the Ford Taurus, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry: all mid-size, front-wheel-drive sedans. Oldsmobile’s rival for them, the 1988-vintage Cutlass Supreme, had become dated. The aim of the new-for-1998 Intrigue was to deliver a family sedan that was not only well-packaged and sensible, but also fun-to-drive and differentiated from the other GM W-Bodies. If it succeeded with buyers, Oldsmobile’s future would seemingly be assured.
Sadly, we know how this story ended. Although Oldsmobile had its best model line-up in years, the 107-year old division closed down in 2004.
It was a sad fate for such a storied nameplate, and it was also a sad fate for GM’s most competitive mid-sized offering in years. The Intrigue was the result of extensive market research in California, the biggest market in the US for imports. Middle America could be left to the Buick Century/Regal and Pontiac Grand Prix: the Intrigue was intended to target the hundreds of thousands of Accord and Camry buyers in North America. Another sign of the Intrigue’s mission? There was no bench seat or column shifter available.
The Intrigue did have one key fault, however: quality control. This was nothing unique to Oldsmobile, as mediocre fit-and-finish, subpar materials and sketchy electrics were common complaints of GM’s other contemporary offerings. To its credit, the Intrigue was more reliable than offerings within its own showroom like the Aurora with its flaky 4.0 V8.
You only get one chance to make a first impression. Were some potential shoppers lured into showrooms by the flashy commercials, only to dismiss this promising new sedan on account of a tinny glove compartment lid or a driver’s door that didn’t close with a solid thunk? Or did they never enter the showroom to begin with?
While the Intrigue appeared to not be as high-quality as an Accord, the divide wasn’t as prominent as it was between, say, a 1995 Camry and 1995 Cutlass Supreme. The 1996 Camry and 1997 Accord had received some cost-cutting, after all. The Intrigue’s interior was quite clean and elegant, with a subtle two-tone treatment available. After an unpleasant bout of cost-cutting earlier in the 1990s, the previous-generation W-Bodies had received almost identical, ugly interiors in 1995. However, the new Grand Prix, Century/Regal and Intrigue had uniquely differentiated interior designs.
If anything, the Intrigue received a disproportionate amount of attention compared to the other W-Bodies. It was originally to launch with the Twin Dual Cam 3.4 as a stopgap engine, but that plan was scrapped as consumer clinics found it too unrefined. Instead, the Intrigue launched with the same Series II 3800 V6 used in the Grand Prix and Century/Regal as a stopgap; it had 195 hp at 5200 rpm and 220 ft-lbs at 4000 rpm. The old Buick mill had been steadily refined over the years and produced competitive power/torque numbers, with a 0-60 time of just under 8 seconds.
For 1999, a unique new engine would be launched in uplevel GLS Intrigues and by 2000 it was standard across the range. This power plant, officially named the 3.5L Twin Cam, was popularly referred to as the Shortstar as it was a modern, double overhead cam 3.5 V6 derived from the Northstar V8. The new engine received critical acclaim and was featured on Ward’s 10 Best Engines list in both 1999 and 2000. Power and torque surpassed the 3800 with 215 hp at 5500 rpm and 234 ft-lbs at 4400 rpm. It was smooth and refined, as well as being torquier than the V6 engines of the Japanese. It even retained the Northstar’s limp-home function that allowed the engine to run even after a sudden loss of coolant.
Although the 3800 is commonly regarded as being a particularly reliable engine, not to mention a surprisingly torquey and fuel-efficient one, those Intrigues so equipped were known for having issues with coolant leaks. The Shortstar, however, appears to have had no major reliability issues, although sourcing parts could be a problem for Intrigue owners as it was only available in the Intrigue and second-generation Aurora.
The Intrigue’s memorable advertising campaign
GM had developed a modern, class-competitive DOHC V6. Why didn’t they offer it throughout the rest of the GM fleet? Was it really about affording Oldsmobile two unique engines (the Aurora V8 being the other)? Surely the cost of developing and continuing to manufacture this engine could have been amortized by putting it in some other vehicles. Instead, much like the Twin Dual Cam 3.4 launched in 1991, the Shortstar was another new V6 that would die years before the old battle-axe 3800 did. An entirely new 3.6 V6, the High Feature, was developed and launched in 2004; unlike the Shortstar, it quickly proliferated across almost all GM divisions, including GMC and Saturn.
Praise of the Intrigue’s dynamics was almost unanimous. The four-wheel independent suspension – with an anti-roll bar up front and a stabilizer bar at the back – delivered crisp handling and a tight, controlled feel. Its magnetic speed-variable power steering was sharp. An Autobahn option package was also available, adding bigger brakes and performance tires. Unlike the Nissan Maxima and Honda Accord though, there was no available manual transmission. Instead, there was one of GM’s smooth-shifting four-speed automatics. Although this was a tick against it for enthusiasts, the manual-transmission mid-size sedan never had broad consumer appeal in North America and there were few left by the end of the Intrigue’s run.
Motor Trend found the Olds to be more liveable than the Maxima while having comparable handling; they also said it was an appealing compromise between the soft Camry and “high-strung” Maxima in a 1998 comparison test. Consumer Guide declared, “If you’re looking for a midsize car with a thoughtful blend of features and performance, don’t decide until you’ve driven this pleasant and surprising new Olds.” Car & Driver even said the Intrigue drove like an import… A European import, no less.
The Intrigue came well-equipped for its approximately $21k base price, with standard air-conditioning and anti-lock brakes. Around 108k Intrigues were sold in the first (long) sales year, over double the number of 1997 Cutlass Supremes sold even though the latter had three bodystyles to choose from. But alarmingly, sales dropped each year: to around 90k in 1999, 64k the year after, and just 39k the year after that. The Oldsmobile division’s death had been speculated on for years and was formally announced in 2002. The Intrigue and Aurora V6 were axed that year, while the Aurora V8 survived until 2003 and the Bravada, Silhouette and Alero were finally killed in 2004. Unlike the later, ignominious death of Pontiac, 500 of the final examples of each Oldsmobile received a special Final 500 package with gorgeous dark cherry metallic paint and unique badging.
Oldsmobile’s death was a sad event but realistically, for a corporation with less than a quarter of market share in the US, having so many separate brands was unsustainable. Let’s look just at GM’s mid-size offerings. A new Chevrolet Malibu is launching for 2016, replacing a model launched in MY2013. This replaced a car launched in MY2008. Those product cycles are what the Japanese were so praised for in the 1980s and 1990s, the same time in which the Intrigue’s predecessor was sold from 1988 until 1997. Having so many brands occupying so many of the same segments is a risky game, especially when you split the mid-size segment in two as Oldsmobile did with the Alero and Intrigue.
Remember the Pontiac G6? It was GM’s heavily-promoted mid-size baby until the 2007 North American Car of the Year, the related Saturn Aura, was launched. The Aura surfed the wave of critical praise until the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu arrived. The G6 and Aura received some improvements during their run, but other than brand loyalty and perhaps styling preference, wouldn’t most buyers have bought the newer, fresher model if all three cars were in the same segment?
Had Oldsmobile survived past 2004, odds are the Intrigue would have stuck around for a few too many years. There might have been a heavy cosmetic revision, à la the 2005 LaCrosse and 2004 Grand Prix, and the critical reception would have been much less glowing than in 1998. The Alero would have potentially switched to the G6’s Epsilon platform, maybe received a handsome coupe and convertible, and become Oldsmobile’s core mid-size offering while the Intrigue withered away. And no doubt, Oldsmobile would have then gotten the axe come bankruptcy time.
For many years, GM’s most promising mid-sizers were often still half-baked. The 1982 Celebrity had the hoary Iron Duke standard. The 1988 Grand Prix, Motor Trend’s Car of the Year, had a limp 2.8 V6 that struggled against the W-Body’s weight. The 1997 Malibu was utterly forgettable without having the quality levels of a Camry in which such blandness is forgivable. Although the Intrigue came out with a stopgap engine, albeit a competitive one, it was as close as GM had come in a long time to releasing a mid-size sedan that was full-baked, and it was marred only by mediocre build quality. But while GM invested a huge amount of money in trying to keep Oldsmobile viable, they weren’t committed enough and Olds got the axe at a time when most of its lineup was still fresh. In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent says, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” The Intrigue didn’t have the luxury of living quite that long.